Saturday, August 31, 2013

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Syria chemical weapons attacks – we still don’t know who is responsible

Thank goodness for the House of Commons, and especially those Conservative members who broke ranks with the government over a military strike on Syria. The US could still go it alone. It would be a punitive strike, which is in breach of international law, but the US has never cared much for international law. They have said that a strike would be ‘specific’ and that its function would be to deter Damascus from using chemical weapons again – clearly an attempt to don the ‘R2P’ (responsibility to protect) mantle. 

What utter bunkum – all it will achieve if it goes ahead is to weaken the regime’s ability to deal with the insurrection. Perhaps al-Qaida will send a thank-you postcard to the White House afterwards.

But haven’t we been getting way ahead of ourselves with all this talk of military action? All the invective and innuendo notwithstanding, the fact remains that we still don’t know who used that awful stuff that killed hundreds of people. One would have thought that priority number 1 at this stage should be establishing who is responsible for this war crime. The trouble is that conclusions were reached just hours after the event without any niceties such as evidence being involved in those conclusions. The day of what appeared to be a chemical attack in the outskirts of Damascus, William Haig was venting his spleen against the al-Assad regime which he claimed was responsible, and the White House jumped on the bandwagon shortly after.

One fool who appeared on the BBC in a snippet about the just-arrived UN chemical weapons team said the chemical had been delivered by a ‘ballistic missile’. I sure hope he’s not one of the ‘experts’ as he needs to look up ‘ballistic missile’ on Wikipedia – the little short-range rocket shown on the report is no more a ‘ballistic missile’ than a single-engine Cessna is a jumbo-jet.

One thing now seems clear enough: yet again, chemical weapons have been used in the Syrian conflict. The question was then, and is now, who has used them.  The White House claims that there is ‘no doubt’ the regime was the culprit, but we have not been privy to the evidence, on the assumption that there is any – this is, after all, a country that went to war against Iraq based on the existence of Saddam’s WMDs, which turned out to be a pure fabrication.

Chuck Hagel and Barack Obama have both opined that it is unthinkable that anyone but the regime could have been behind this attack, the implication being that it required a level of technological sophistication ‘the opposition’ would not be able to avail itself of. Setting aside the fragility of any accusation based on the convenient assumption that nobody else could have perpetrated a certain deed, this assertion is seriously flawed when judged on its own merits. Sarin is not particularly difficult to make. A product of 1930s chemical technology, you could produce it in a well-equipped high school chemistry lab. Various groups have had access to it – recall Aum Shinrikyo’s attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. The delivery system – that rather primitive rocket – could be made in a none-too-sophisticated workshop. We are dealing with pretty basic technology and both the chemical and the rocket could have been sourced from almost anywhere. The Middle East is awash with weaponry of that kind, both industrially and non-industrially manufactured. And it could definitely have been shot off from anywhere in that area by almost anyone – no specialist training required.

No, that doesn’t prove that the regime didn’t do it. But one could well ask oneself what act of self-defeating madness it would be for the regime to use chemical weapons on the heels of the UN inspection team arriving. The al-Assad government is trying to convince the world that it is fighting terrorism, and is playing by the rules. What they could hope to gain from such an act of stupidity is just about impossible to imagine. But it does make perfect sense for ‘the opposition’ (who? Al-Qaida? The al-Nusra Front? Foreign jihadis?) to do just that, anticipating the response of the Western powers. As for wiping out a few people of another ‘opposition’ group – or any old bunch of civilians for that matter – anyone who thinks that would prickle the conscience of characters like those heading some of ‘the opposition’ bands of cutthroats should take a return ticket from Cloud Cuckoo Land to Planet Earth.

True, the Syrian authorities were not very cooperative at first. But they are under an obligation to protect the UN team, and were not in control of the area where the attack occurred. A Syrian ‘national council’ fellow in Turkey hastily assured the team of their safety should they enter the area. Who is he to give such assurances, pray tell? He issues the orders to the 50+ ‘opposition’ groups including al-Qaida, does he? Time for a reality check! You will recall that, as it turned out, a sniper opened up on the UN inspection team convoy when it got to the site, and it was more luck than management that saw to it that nobody was killed.

Haig’s attitude is particularly worrisome. English law became evidence-based nigh on 800 years ago. Even if it turns out that he is correct, he was in no position to deliver that verdict before the evidence was in. This is the stuff of mediaeval witchcraft trials in Germany and France, not the stuff of English law and not, one would hope, the stuff of 21st century international law.


The day this article was submitted, the White House released some of the evidence that they claim implicates the regime as the perpetrator of this war crime. No ‘smoking gun’ was presented, but rather a narrative woven together from various observations and intercepted communications. No doubt the narrative has persuasive power – narratives cobbled together from bits and pieces of data are tailor-made to have just that.

My aim in writing this article was to point out that the conclusions regarding culpability have preceded the evidence throughout, and that this is unacceptable by the norms of civilised law. It also casts a shadow over the evidence presented, which needs to be subjected to intense and critical scrutiny. According to the maxim of “presumed innocent until proven guilty”, my case at this moment in time remains that we still do not know who was responsible. The White House claims that it has more. I am with President Putin when he says that they should reveal this evidence to the Security Council; put up or shut up. In the meantime, to use language that they may actually understand, “Put that there six-shooter back in its holster, boy. You ain’t goin’ shootin’ no Injuns today.” 

Dr Barend Vlaardingerbroek has been at the American University of Beirut since 2004.  Feedback welcome at 


Barry said...

This article makes sense to me

Dave said...

Who knows 'who did it' fact is both sides are evil and both are capable.
Its amusing that the same world who is critical of everything the USA does now expects it to be the global policeman. Why should America do anything, risk its service mens lives spend millions on munitions and for what result. Its taking so long the Syrian regime must have long ago moved or evacuated likely targets and when its all over even more people will curse the USA.
Where is the outcry about the country's like Russia and Chinese who supply all these weapons guns and bombs. Where do they get all those AKs and bullets from?